With a 112-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at FedExForum Friday night and an earlier loss by the Portland Trailblazers to the Indiana Pacers, the Grizzlies improved to 27-24 and moved into 8th place in the Western Conference, good enough for a playoff birth if the season ended today.
It wasn't as easy as many anticipated. Trying to avoid tying an NBA record with 23 consecutive single-season losses, the Cavs stayed with the Grizzlies for three quarters. The Grizzlies began by making their first 10 field-goal attempts, but you got the sense that with the offense humming so smoothly against such an ostensibly inferior opponent, that the Grizzlies got complacent at the defensive end — and three early fouls for Marc Gasol didn't help. Even when making every shot, the Grizzlies couldn't get more than 6 or 8 up on the Cavs, and when the offense bogged down with missed shots and turnovers, the Cavs kept going, holding a seven-point lead at halftime and going up by as many as 12 in the third quarter. The Grizzlies finally got serious, turning up their defense, focusing the offense more on Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, and cutting the deficit to one at the end of the third quarter. The Grizzlies started the fourth quarter with a 13-0 run and essentially put it away.
Enjoy this playoff perch for a moment Griz fans, because a tough road game tomorrow night against the Houston Rockets could make it short-lived, especially since the team had to play Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph 45 and 44 minutes tonight, respectively.
But the Grizzlies head to Houston on a season-best five-game winning streak. And rather than go deep into the win over the Cavs, I'm going to instead highlight four individual-player trends that are helping drive the team's current good play:
Mike Conley's Shot: Conley has been playing terrific all-around basketball in the streak, averaging 17 points, 9 assists, and only 1.6 turnovers. But the most notable aspect of Conley's recent play is the return of his three-point stroke, with 11-18 shooting from long-range over the past five games.
Conley shot 39% and 41% on three-point attempts the past two seasons, but had been slumping the past couple of months, shooting 33% in December and 32% in January. Now, he's hit two or more threes in each of his past four games after doing so only seven times total in the season's previous 47 games.
And Conley's picked a good time to find his missing three-point stroke, with the team's best outside threat, O.J. Mayo, out these past five games to his league suspension. (Fact that I wouldn't make too much of but that can't be ignored: Including the "bronchitis" game, the Grizzlies are now 6-0 without Mayo this season.)
Rudy Gay's Playmaking: Rudy Gay played a really nice all-around game against the Cavs. He scored 26 points (8-20 from the floor, but 9-11 from the line), with 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks.
This has been the story of Gay's advance this season: Not a massive, flashy leap, but a series of ostensibly modest improvements in most areas of his game. And the least minor of these improvements has come in the area of Gay's oft maligned passing.
Anyone who's watched Gay closely in his career can see that he's become a more willing and effective passer this season, and the numbers bear this out: Gay's assist ratio is up by nearly a third, from 8.6 to 12.0. His assist numbers during the current streak: 4-4-3-7-4. Last season, Gay had 3 or more assists in 24 of his 80 games. This season, he's already done so in 29 of 49 games.
Sam Young's Scoring: With the injuries to Xavier Henry and Tony Allen and the suspension of O.J. Mayo, Sam Young has bounced from the bottom to the top of the team's crowded two-guard depth chart. And Young has done well with the opportunity during the current win streak, becoming a reliable secondary scorer.
During the streak, Young is averaging 13.8 points on 55% shooting and has looked like something of a poor-man's Bonzi Wells, minus the crazy: A power guard with a scorer's tunnel vision who is very effective within 18 feat but has a shaky outside shot. Young has probably been smart to fall in line with the team philosophy of minimizing three-point shooting, going 1-4 from long-range in the streak.
The downside, as Lionel Hollins noted after the Cleveland game, is that despite his size and athleticism for a two-guard, Young has not been rebounding well, averaging only 1.6 boards during the streak.
But as a scorer, Young has stepped up, more than supplying the scoring level the team had been getting from Mayo this season.
Hasheem Thabeet in the Game and in the Zone: A disaster for much of the season, Hasheem Thabeet has become a more consistent and functional part of the team during the streak. It all started back in Philadelphia when, down 21 points in the third quarter, the Grizzlies went to a 2-3 zone defense with Thabeet in the middle, spurring a comeback.
The team has used this zone scheme in most — not all, but most — of Thabeet's minutes since, and he's looked much more comfortable and effective anchoring the zone.
Thabeet has played 8.6 minutes a game during the stretch, and his averages are still abysmal: 1.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, 0.4 blocks. But the Grizzlies have been better as a team with Thabeet in the game lately than they were earlier in the season. You can see him reacting to the action better, altering shots, and deflecting passes. As a result, the Grizzlies have been able to soak up 8-12 minutes with Thabeet on most night without losing much, if any, ground.
Thabeet's individual-game plus/minus during the streak: +9, +1, +7, -5, -2.